On Sept. 21, 1939, only weeks into World War II, Alfred Hitchcock – recently imported from Britain by the mighty David O. Selznick to direct “Rebecca” – was taken to lunch by the independent producer Walter Wanger.
Wanger pitched a project that, according to Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto, gave the filmmaker validation for staying in Hollywood: the espionage thriller eventually titled “Foreign Correspondent.” Newly released by Criterion in a dual-format edition, “Foreign Correspondent” may be middling Hitch, but it is a case study in adaptation, both Hollywood’s to the outbreak of war in Europe and Hitchcock’s to the making of movies in America.
The day after Germany invaded Poland, Wanger revealed plans to revive his adaptation of the journalist Vincent Sheean’s “Personal History,” a project he’d been forced to cancel 15 months earlier. The left-wing writer John Howard Lawson turned in a scenario that sent the foreign correspondent to Nazi Germany to report on the persecution of German Jews.
Pressured by his backers as well as the Breen Office, Wanger delayed “Personal History” until war (and the precedent Warner Bros. set with “Confessions of a Nazi Spy”) made the movie possible once more.
Despite periodic requests from Wanger for greater topicality, Hitchcock kept the tone light. For most of its length, “Foreign Correspondent” is less an anti-fascist or a pro-interventionist tract than a comic thriller on the model of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934) or “The 39 Steps” (1935).
With cheerful title music at odds with a tacked-on dedication to “those clearheaded ones who now stand like recording angels among the dead and dying,” the movie begins on Aug. 19, 1939 (just days before the never-mentioned Hitler-Stalin Pact), with Joel McCrea’s pugnacious, pointedly ignorant American crime reporter dispatched to London to get the “hard facts” about the European situation.
Outwitted or outclassed by suave, morally ambiguous Britons (Herbert Marshall and George Sanders), the American discovers a winsome peace activist (Laraine Day) and a conspiracy involving an elderly Dutch diplomat (German refugee Albert Bassermann, an Oscar nominee for his performance) who is party to a treaty clause so secret it can only be orally transmitted – a MacGuffin that’s absurd even by Hitchcock standards.
Hitchcock was mainly interested in the movie’s set pieces (the scene in which an assassin escapes through a sea of open umbrellas and the sequence where McCrea stumbles upon sinister doings inside a windmill) – a splendid visual metaphor in which, tangled up in the aero-generator’s internal mechanism, the reporter is all but ground up by the plot’s shifting gears.
The grand climax, in which an airline clipper is shot from the sky and plunges into the Atlantic (or rather, an enormous studio tank) is something of a pyrotechnical wonder.
“Foreign Correspondent” wrapped on June 5. Paris fell to the Germans five days later. Clearly something had to be added to his finished film before its August release.
On Hitchcock’s advice, Wanger recruited ex-newspaperman Ben Hecht to write an inspirational closer, set in a London radio studio. As an air raid siren sounds, the studio lights go out, “The Star-Spangled Banner” swells, and McCrea warns his radio audience that death and darkness are coming and exhorts the folks back home to build “a canopy of battleships and bombing planes” and “hang on to your lights, they’re the only lights left in the world!”
In an oft-cited (if rarely sourced) appreciation, the Nazi minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, is said to have characterized “Foreign Correspondent” as “a masterpiece of propaganda” – indistinguishable, perhaps, from consummate Hollywood entertainment.